We Jews, so the saying goes, are our own worst enemies.
There is a lot of truth in that statement. From our earliest days, we have wasted precious time, resources, and lives in internecine struggles – the absurd warfare between the Gileadites and the Ephraimites, for example, as described in Judges 12 – that undermine the mantra that we are one people and that each of us is responsible for everyone else.
Keeping the faith: One religious perspective on issues of the day There are no “Jews,” per se. There are Litvak Jews and Galitzianer Jews; German Jews and Polish Jews; mitnagdim and chasidim; Gerer and Sadagorer; haredi and Reform – and never the twain shall meet. In each group, there usually exists a sense of triumphalism and superiority.
There is, however, little sense of unity.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the millennia-old contempt that Ashkenazic Jews traditionally have held for Jews from just about anywhere else, mainly (but not only) Sephardim.
Sometime in the fourth century, Jews exiled by the Romans from the Land of Israel were resettled in southern Italy. Over the next half-millennium, many of their posterity migrated to a large strip of land extending from France through Germany along the Rhine. They called that area of northwestern Europe “Ashkenaz.”
From the time that Ashkenazic Jews began to emerge on the scene, its denizens have held to the notion that they know better than anyone else how everything should be done – and that arrogance colors everything they do.
This hubris is evident in many ways, including in a reformulation of Isaiah 2:3 found in the Sefer ha-Yashar, written 800 years ago by Rashi’s grandson, Rabbeinu Tam. The original verse reads, “for out of Zion shall come the Torah, and the Word of the Lord from Jerusalem.” In Ashkenaz, this became, “For out of Bari shall come the Torah and the word of the Lord from Otranto,” referring to towns in southern Italy. Long before Rabbeinu Tam’s time, Bari apparently was a center of Ashkenazic learning; before his time and during it, Otranto indeed was.
A hundred years after Rabbeinu Tam, Asher ben Yechiel, who was born in western Germany, wrote this after settling in Toledo, Spain: “I would not eat according to [Sephardi] usage, adhering as I do to our own custom and to the tradition of our blessed forefathers, the sages of Ashkenaz, who received the Torah as an inheritance from their ancestors from the days of the destruction of the Temple. Likewise the tradition of our [Ashkenazic] forebears and teachers in France is superior to that of the sons of this land.”
That Ashkenazic hubris carried itself into official policy in the State of Israel. The Russian and German Jews who helped found the state and who were its earliest leaders, as much as each disdained the other, made every effort to denigrate or destroy the culture and religious practices of Israel’s Sephardi and Mizrachi citizens. (The Mizrachi, often confused with the Sephardi, with whom they share many customs and practices, are Jews from Arab lands and North Africa. True Sephardim trace their origins to pre-expulsion Spain and Portugal.)
Presumably, this discrimination came to an end once the Sephardi and the Mizrachi gained political clout. Although the situation in Israel has markedly improved, some of this discrimination exists to this day, particularly in the haredi communities.
The situation in the west bank settlement of Emanuel is illustrative. Last August, Israel’s High Court of Justice ordered the haredi-run Beis Yaakov girls school there to end its discriminatory practices against Sephardi and Mizrachi girls. The school ignored the order. Many parents, meanwhile, pulled out their daughters and set up an unauthorized school next door to make certain that their Ashkenazi children were not “contaminated” by the “inferior” Sephardi and Mizrachi children.
In May, the High Court ordered Emanuel to shut down the unauthorized schools and ordered Beis Yaakov to pay a fine of NIS 5,000 a day for every day that it continued to violate the anti-discrimination order. Both the town and the school ignored that order, as well. This past week, the court ordered a number of Emanuel parents to be jailed until the end of the school year (meaning the end of next week). In response, at least 100,000 haredi rallied in Jerusalem in support of “the people who were willing to sanctify God’s name and go into prison rather than dishonor the Torah,” as one yeshiva student was quoted as saying.
Think of it: Allowing Sephardi children in the same class as Ashkenazi children brings disgrace to God’s Holy Name and dishonors the Torah. Not only is that hubris on a grand scale, it is itself a desecration of God’s Name. This is not my opinion alone, or a “Conservative” or “liberal” view alone. It is, in fact, the opinion of the majority of Orthodox rabbis inside Israel, including many on the right, including the late dean of Lithuanian Jewry, Rabbi Eliezer Schach. While the Ashkenazic hubris may be breaking down, however, Emanuel is a sign that it is not breaking down fast enough.
This hubris was always puzzling, not the least because the first Mizrachi immigrants to the Land of Israel were Abraham and Sarah. The Babylonian rabbis who created the version of the Talmud considered authoritative by all were Mizrachi. Sephardi rabbis are among the greatest figures in our religious history. Sephardim excelled in philosophy and science; they gave us great art, literature, and liturgy.
Who can imagine Jewish life today without the many essential contributions of Sephardim and Mizrachim?
Successive Jewish law codes depended on the version Maimonides compiled. Indeed, Jacob ben Asher, son of Asher ben Yechiel, based most of the rulings in his Arba-ah Turim (the “four rows”) on Maimonides’ code and on the rulings of the Sephardi talmudist Rabbi Meir Abulafia. The definitive code, the Shulchan Aruch, which was patterned after the Ba-al HaTurim’s work, is the product of a Sephardi great, Rabbi Joseph Caro.
The Friday night hymn Lecha Dodi emanated from a Sephardi, as did other parts of the liturgy used even in Ashkenazi synagogues. Various customs common to all also emanated from the Sephardim, such as the all-night study sessions on Shavuot, a staple in Ashkenazi circles.
We as a people have come a long way in 3,500 years. How sacrilegious it is that after all that time, we still have not figured out how to make the journey together.
- sefer ha-yashar
- rabbeinu tam
- ashar ben yechiel
- beis yaakov
- rabbi eliezer schach
- out of hubris comes contempt
- litvak jews
- rabbi joseph caro